Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Foreign Press Association condemns Hamas threats to journalists - and vindicates claims intimidation is affecting Gaza coverage

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In David's Benstein's piece "Forty questions for the international media" published in the Washington Post, he put important questions to the foreign press in Gaza, regarding Hamas tactics of intimidation which at the time received little coverage. Bernstein asked questions that included, "1. Have you or any of your colleagues been intimidated by Hamas? 2. Do you feel restricted in your ability to ‘say what you see' in Gaza? 3. How do you feel about the Spanish journalist who said Hamas would kill any journalist if they filmed rocket fire?"

Now it appears we have some answers to Bernstein's questions, following the Foreign Press Association's (FPA) strong condemnation of Hamas harassment of foreign media in Gaza on August 11.  It stated:

"The FPA protests in the strongest terms the blatant, incessant, forceful and unorthodox methods employed by the Hamas authorities and their representatives against visiting international journalists in Gaza over the past month. The international media are not advocacy organisations and cannot be prevented from reporting by means of threats or pressure, thereby denying their readers and viewers an objective picture from the ground. In several cases, foreign reporters working in Gaza have been harassed, threatened or questioned over stories or information they have reported through their news media or by means of social media.

We are also aware that Hamas is trying to put in place a ‘vetting' procedure that would, in effect, allow for the blacklisting of specific journalists. Such a procedure is vehemently opposed by the FPA."

This ‘vetting procedure' was described in a JTA report on August 11 as ordering foreign journalists working in Gaza to hold press cards issued by the Hamas press office. The JTA report stated:

"The journalists must provide the Hamas press office with information about their Palestinian translators and assistants, and the address of where they will be staying, according to the directives issued Sunday. The new rules are to help with ‘facilitating and organizing the mission of our foreign colleagues,' the Hamas press office said, according to The Jerusalem Post. Journalists who do not meet the requirements will not be permitted to work in Gaza, the press office said."

In recent weeks there has been an increase in foreign correspondents reporting on Hamas' tactic of firing rockets from civilian buildings, and Hamas threats to journalists.

According to the Jerusalem Post, Paul T. Jørgensen of Norway's TV2 reported on August 10, that "several foreign journalists have been kicked out of Gaza because Hamas does not like what they wrote or said," adding "We have received strict orders that if we record that Hamas fires rockets or that they shoot, we will face serious problems and be expelled from Gaza".

Oren Kessler provided other examples in his article in the New Republic:

"As the war dragged on, Hamas' tactics became harder to ignore. On July 21, the Wall Street Journal's Nick Casey tweeted his suspicion that patients at Shifa were less than thrilled at Hamas's use of the place. That tweet, however, was soon deleted without explanation. The next day, a Palestinian journalist wrote in France's Liberation newspaper that he had been interrogated by Hamas and threatened with expulsion from the Strip. A colleague had even denied him shelter for the night, explaining, "You don't mess with these people"-Hamas, that is-"during war." Two days later, the story was pulled at the journalist's request.

On July 28, explosions hit Shifa and the nearby Shati refugee camp, killing ten people-nine of them children. A Daily Beast report from Gaza, ‘Israel's Campaign to Send Gaza Back to the Stone Age,' described a scene in which ‘young children writhed in pain on gurneys waiting for scrambling ER doctors to attend to them following an air strike on the Al Shati Refugee camp. Nine of the 10 people killed in the attack were children and many more were wounded.' At the same time, however, an Italian journalist admitted the strike had not been Israel's work but the result of a misfired Hamas rocket-evidence of which Hamas had quickly cleaned up. He had waited to disclose the information, he wrote, until he was well away from Gaza (and Hamas' retribution).

As the conflict approached the one-month mark, media coverage had perceptibly changed. On August 1, a correspondent for Finnish TV reported seeing rockets fired from Shifa. Days later, an Indian TV crew, filming from their hotel room, spotted a Hamas team setting up a rocket launcher in a densely populated area nearby. Yet again, the footage was aired only after the crew left Gaza.

But the most damning footage of all came on August 5, from Gallagher Fenwick of the TV network France 24. Several days prior, the correspondent had been reporting live when a Hamas rocket whooshed over his head. Returning later to the launch site, he revealed that it had been a densely populated area 100 meters from a U.N. facility and 50 meters from a hotel frequented by foreign journalists."

The NDTV reporter Sreenivasan Jain, later explained the fear of reprisals from Hamas which were in their mind as they considered when and how to air the footage they had recorded (see clip below).

"We knew then we had to air the story. For us to have filmed how a rocket was assembled next to us, on a site used twice to launch a rocket, endangering the lives of all those around us on two occasions -to not have reported it would have been simply wrong. But we did take precautions - we aired the report a good five hours after the rocket was launched, well into the ceasefire. By then it was clear that Israel was not responding, at least for the period of the ceasefire. (Incidentally, given Israel's extensive surveillance of rockets launched from the Gaza Strip it hardly seems they would need the media to point out to them where rockets are fired from.)

There was the question of possible reprisal by Hamas; to this one, there are no easy answers other than to ask: how long do we self-censor because of the fear of personal safety in return for not telling a story that exposes how those launching rockets are putting so many more lives at risk, while the rocket-makers themselves are at a safe distance? More so when we have rare, first hand proof of how it works..."

While Jain was also critical of Israel's military actions, he responded to pro-Palestinian critics by making it clear what the import of the report on the rockets was, and took on the myth that Hamas has no choice but to fire from civilian areas:

"If we have reported that the other side - Hamas - is also posing a risk to Gaza civilians, surely those who are concerned about the Palestinian cause should direct their ire at that group, and not at us? Our report in no way implies proportionality. The death toll - close to 1800 Palestinians killed to about 60 Israelis - hardly needs restating... But by firing these rockets from civilian areas, they threaten the people of Gaza more than anyone else: that was the simple point of this report.

Instead a series of arguments have been thrown at us, for instance, the 'we have no choice' argument, suggesting that Israeli encroachment has deprived Gaza of open spaces from which Hamas can launch attacks. This is factually dubious - one only has to drive down the Salahudin Road from Gaza City in the north to Khan Younis in the south to see that the Gaza strip is not, as is commonly believed a continuous urban agglomeration. "

The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Centre (ITIC), has also cited Hamas instructions that were aimed at curbing reports on rockets being fired from civilian areas or images of Hamas fighters:

"...during the first days of the fighting the information bureau of the Hamas- controlled ministry of the interior in Gaza issued instructions under the heading ‘Be aware of the following.' The instructions dealt with how the social networks in the Gaza Strip were to relate to Israeli activity (YouTube, July 10, 2014).

Instruction number five read, ‘Do not publicize [information about] and do not share pictures or video clips showing rocket launching sites or the movement of resistance [operatives] in Gaza.' Those responsible for news pages on Facebook were told ‘don't use close-ups of heavily armed masked operatives, otherwise your Facebook page will be closed for incitement to violence.'

Hamas issued similar instructions to correspondents in other ways. For example, the Palestinian Journalist Bloc, a media group in the Gaza Strip affiliated with Hamas, instructed the media and correspondents in the Gaza Strip not to photograph or publicize information about rockets fired by military-terrorist operatives belonging to the various organizations so as not to play into the hands of Israeli public diplomacy (Hamas' Al-Aqsa TV, July 8, 2014)...

Regardless of the journalists' reasons, Hamas' media policy was clearly successful, as far as Hamas is concerned. A foreign correspondent, who preferred to remain anonymous, told Yedioth Aharonoth's Daniel Batini (August 7, 2014) that ‘First, Hamas said its spokesmen could only be interviewed in the courtyard of the Al-Shifa'a Hospital in Gaza City. That meant there were long lines of correspondents waiting for interviews, and as a result they watched the bleeding wounded arriving at the hospital for treatment. That [system] created exactly the impression Hamas wanted, of an immediate emergency situation and a human and humanitarian catastrophe.

Second, Hamas never allowed foreign correspondents access to military sites attacked by Israel, whether they were bases, rocket launching sites or other targets. The organization's dead and wounded operatives were not photographed and therefore, from a media point of view, they do not exist. All that serves Hamas' objective of representing all the casualties as civilians. Third, it was obvious that Hamas was firing rockets from civilian areas, but Hamas operatives forbid camera teams from filming them, because they did not want to reveal the tactic or the locations of the launch sites' (ITIC translation from Hebrew and emphasis throughout)."

Journalists face a critical, difficult and dangerous task in reporting from conflict zones. The reporting on this current conflict from Gaza, had led many to express concern that media coverage was being shaped by threats and intimidation of journalists by Hamas while in Gaza. The FPA's statement has provided further evidence validating these concerns.

Sharyn Mittelman

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